A whopping 34 percent of women over 40 are dating younger men, according to a 2003 survey. The same poll, which surveyed 3,500 single people (both women and men) aged 40 to 69 years old, found that 56 percent are currently separated or divorced from a spouse, 31 percent have never been married, and seven in 10 (74 percent) of formerly married singles in their 50s have been single for five years or more.
The study stated that the divorce rate now, compared to when cougars were married some 25 years ago, has contributed to the amount of single, 50+ women, said to be “on the prowl” in today’s dating pool.
More Fun, Less 'Baggage'
For Wheeler, younger men have been a natural fit for an energetic lifestyle that her male peers have never quite matched.
“I can’t explain why, but I’ve always been,” she said, pausing. “Without even knowing someone’s age, you can be sure I’m going to gravitate toward the younger guy. And I don’t know if it’s a function of I’m attracted to younger guys or younger guys are attracted to me. It’s just their energy, their enthusiasm” and—the biggie—“less baggage.”
In fact, the stuff of the past may be what keeps her from dating men closer to her age altogether. That and music, of course.
“They’re always going on and on about their exes and the kids,” she said of her male peers. “The baggage, the baggage, is the main thing. And being stuck in the music they listened to in college. I want to know what’s new. I want to hear what’s new. Younger guys seem to have more to contribute to my life, and they’re just adorable.”
The AARP study concludes that the No. 1 complaint from both single men and single women—42 percent and 35 percent, respectively—dating in their 50s was the history a partner of the same age carried into a relationship.
Men, of course, have their reasons for dating older women, too. In the fast-paced world of Los Angeles, “dating” may mean going out a few times or spending just one night together. “This isn’t about dating,” said Kevin Mercer* candidly. The 27-year-old works in L.A.’s entertainment industry and isn’t shy discussing his city’s cougar phenomenon. “It’s a total transactional situation.”
And that works out just fine for these young men, who often prefer relationships—whether fleeting or long-term—with cougars.
“These older women are confident, sexually mature, they don’t have inhibitions, they know what they like, and they know what they want,” said Nancy D. O’Reilly, clinical psychologist, researcher, author and host of Voice America’s radio program “Timeless WomenSpeak.” Cougars are independent, career-oriented women who have a been-there-done-that attitude towards marriage and “don’t need anyone to take care of them,” she said. “They’re looking for companionship, sexual contact, and someone good to talk to and spend time with. So be it if the relationship goes further.”
'A Badge of Honor'
While women aren’t exactly shouting their cougar status from the rooftops (“Women never want to be called a “cougar,” because it implies they’re older,” Mercer explained nonchalantly), men aren’t shy about their relationships with older women. On the contrary, they’ll even boast about them, wearing them, in the words of Mercer, “as a badge of honor.”
According to Gibson, young men are driving the trend, sometimes even calling themselves “cougar hunters” when they’re out on the town looking for sexy older women. “Younger men have no problem whatsoever in approaching an older woman who’s single or obviously not wearing a wedding ring anyway,” she said. “They don’t mind at all what age she is as long as she’s vital and gorgeous or something attracts them. Young men have no fear now of being put down by their peers when there’s cougars like Demi Moore and all these beautiful women around, and they say, ‘My gosh, I would love to bed her!”
Smith has found young men to be quite enthusiastic about spending time with her, and she definitely enjoys the attention. After all, she has worked hard for it, with ample sessions of yoga, calculated vitamin concoctions, a good diet, and even a little Botox here and there.
And while she’s not thrilled with the term “cougar” (“slightly dangerous and prone to wearing animal-print clothes,” was her initial cougar visual), she’s certainly not changing her dating habits anytime soon. Wheeler isn’t either, but she’s warming up to the term—slowly.
“It’s silly,” she said laughing. “But I use it. I use it now.”
Originally published Feburary 2008